More stories (yes, always more) coming out of that book signing event I discussed two weeks ago. In that column I referred to a discussion with science historian Ed Tenner on the collective memory that has been formed around the saga of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, now being retold through a comprehensive exhibit at the Morven Museum.
Tenner sent me a note elaborating on the subject:
“It’s often mystery as much as anything else that creates memory, since it lures new generations of writers to solve what has defeated their predecessors,” Tenner wrote. “This is especially true of Jack the Ripper. If the killer had been caught by Scotland Yard, tried, and executed, the horrible events would not be the province of popular history writers and scholars of journalism. Thus I don’t think Ted Bundy’s crimes will have staying power, nor John Wayne Gacy’s.
“One big Lindbergh mystery is what happened to the $30,000 of unspent ransom money. I doubt anybody would destroy it. It would probably be worth many times its face value sold as individual bills to collectors unless the government confiscated it. Don’t know the law on this. Do Lindbergh’s descendants (including the kids of his German postwar girlfriends?) have a claim? The money could turn up at any time.”
The long-lived Lindbergh story led in my case to a story about Scott Berg, the Lindbergh biographer who was appearing in town a few days later to give a lecture in conjunction with the Morven exhibit. I wasn’t able to attend Berg’s lecture but wish I had, if only to see if Berg addressed another story currently unfolding — the racist views of the man responsible for the Princeton motto, “in the nation’s service” — Woodrow Wilson.
Anyone who has read Berg’s 818-page Wilson biography, published in 2013 after a dozen years of research, would have had some insight into Wilson’s checkered past.
Some reviewers criticized Berg, a 1971 Princeton graduate who counted Wilson among his heroes before he decided to apply to Princeton, with cutting the nation’s 28th president a break by painting him as a product of his time. But Berg doesn’t deny that his subject had his flaws. As he told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in 2013:
“He made statements, no matter what age they were uttered in, that are racist in nature. More important, he famously brought Jim Crow back to Washington. They were just starting to integrate the Postal Service, the Treasury Department. . . For me the worst thing Woodrow Wilson did as president was what he didn’t do. That was in 1919 when the soldiers came home from the war. Many of them were African-Americans. They came home thinking: ‘We’ve lost brothers, this is the time we have shown we are full-blooded Americans.’ But he said nothing on the subject.”
That part of the Wilson legacy was brought to light last month when a group of undergraduates, the Black Justice League (BJL), staged a 33-hour sit-in at the office of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber. Among their demands: The striking of Wilson’s name from the university’s acclaimed school of public and international affairs, known as the Woodrow Wilson School since 1948. Even the New York Times entered the fray, denouncing Wilson in an editorial.
The university defused the issue and ended the sit-in by agreeing to consider — emphasize consider — most of the protesters’ demands. But you can be sure that the Wilson story will continue to reverberate as students and alumni — including some very prominent ones from the Wilson School — debate the issue. With Wilson there now seem to be more mysteries to explore.
In the meantime another student group organized to counter the arguments of the BJL. The Princeton Open Campus Coalition argued against acceding to the protesters’ demands. My guess is that these students were also weary of the constant calls for political correctness heard throughout campuses all across the country. The latest edict at Princeton: “Masters” of the undergraduate residential colleges will be called “heads.”
It was all reminiscent of the student protest days of the 1960s I witnessed first hand as a reporter — and later the chairman (a title that would later be changed to the more politically correct editor-in-chief) — at the Daily Princetonian.
Given my experience I was sympathetic to a letter submitted by John Clearwater, a retired engineer who was also on the campus during the late 1960s: “I was present at SDS uprisings against the war as a Navy officer in uniform. Many fellow career officers were at the Woodrow Wilson School as well. We disliked the verbal assaults on our officers and enlisted personnel. However, we understood the venom was directed at our current national leadership and related to actions in prosecution of the war.”
To Clearwater, the current protest is “more troubling. This time it’s not about demanding an end to an unbelievably costly and unpopular war. It’s an assault on the rule of law in our democratic republic.”
But today’s protesters could argue that — in the era of police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement — they too are fighting a war, one that is less institutional but no less threatening.
Clearwater also is dismayed by the lack of response to the concerns raised by the counter-protesters. “The university needs to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns,” Clearwater writes. “Their group is now bearing abusive burdens of hate and discrimination for their personal beliefs both by faculty and fellow students.”
People ask me if I — a survivor of the free-speech, anti-war, pro-women/gay/and whatever other movements — get upset when the majority feels offended by the minority, and no one rushes to the majority’s defense. No, I do not get upset. That issue is a perfect one to be argued back and forth in a collegiate community. Do I feel threatened by the PC police? No, I do not.
New writers will be lured to the Wilson story. But the political correctness debate will just drone on as a story that endures as an exception to Ed Tenner’s thesis — one that’s being told and retold, but without any resolution, or trace of mystery.